[EDITOR'S NOTE — Difference Makers articles share stories of the local heroes making a difference during the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This section is made possible by Eastwood Mall and named in honor of Mark Eckert, who made a difference in the Mahoning Valley.]
YOUNGSTOWN — A Mahoning Valley-based Facebook group, “Kind Hearts, Blessed Souls” allowed users to donate items and services to people in need.
Members can either post in the group and ask for assistance, or choose to “bless” someone else under one condition — money cannot be exchanged. All items must be donated.
Michelle McDonald, a social work student at Youngstown State University, started “Kind Hearts, Blessed Souls” in December 2019.
Within 24 hours of launching the group, it had 1,000 members. Today the group has nearly 18,000 members and serves multiple counties along the Ohio and Pennsylvania border including Mahoning, Trumbull, Ashtabula, Lake, Summit, Portage, Geauga, Stark, Cuyahoga, Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer and Beaver.
McDonald, 36, said the group began as a way to give back during the holiday season.
At first, she started a donation initiative on local Buy Sell Trade Groups and called it “Christmas Spirit.” The initiative was so successful that McDonald started “Kind Hearts, Blessed Souls” as a way to moderate the donations.
According to McDonald, her group has two types of members — givers and people in need.
“Say something happened and you need clothes or you need food — like basic life needs, something that you need to live a basic life — and you don't have any money for it, you're in a rough spot, you lost your job, whatever, you can get on the group and you can put your city, because that's important, and ask for it. If somebody like within your range of location has it, they give it to you for free,” she said.
“Givers can give anything they want, it doesn't actually have to be a basic life need. They [post on the group page] ‘Hey, I have this.’ Sometimes they divide it amongst a lot of people, sometimes they give it to one person, but there's no money involved. There's no buying, there's no selling. We've had givers give money and gift cards, but they have to just want to do that on their own,” she added.
Popular donations include food, clothes and household items. Some givers have offered to take group members grocery shopping, pay for bills, provide transportation and send birthday cards. McDonald said giveaways are also well received within the group.
Although there isn’t a request limit, McDonald said the rule of thumb is once a member has been “blessed” they are encouraged to give other members a chance to be donation recipients.
“What I've learned with this is [that] any organization that gives away free things, people are [going to] try to take advantage. You're going to get that everywhere, and I tell that to everyone like, ‘It happens all over the place, not just us.’ But I feel like we moderate it really well,” McDonald said. “ I think that we've kept the integrity for almost a year.”
Moderating 18,000 members is no small feat, but McDonald told Mahoning Matters that as “Kind Hearts, Blessed Souls” has grown, her fiance, Robert Ehrhart, has stepped in to help with the group.
“He’s actually a veteran. He was in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. So he kind of has that [generosity] in him too. He actually went back to YSU this year to be in nursing. So we're both in like social services, giving professions,” McDonald said.
In McDonald’s opinion, her group has prepared her for a career in social work.
“I'm a shy person normally, and I knew I was going to have to kind of come out of that shell eventually to be a social worker because you have to talk to people,” she said. “But I've met people off the group because I've donated stuff to people and they just tell me their life story without me asking for it. So it's actually kind of helped train me to be in social work in ways. So that's kind of like an added bonus that I never would have thought would happen.”
Looking forward, McDonald hopes to eventually turn “Kind Hearts, Blessed Souls” into a nonprofit organization.
“We've talked about, if we could do a nonprofit, if we could do something kind of like the setup that Craigslist used to be but with giving, not selling. It would still be the same thing, but then it would be able to reach like way more people,” she said.